Whatever It Takes: School Turnaround Realities

When Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School says that he and his staff do “whatever it takes” to create a safe and orderly environment for students to learn, he is not kidding around.

“Safe and orderly is number one,” Sandoval recently told an audience at a U.S. Department of Education forum on School Improvement Grant (SIG) implementation. The goal of the Department’s SIG program is to support state and local efforts in turning around the lowest-performing five percent of the nation’s public schools. Arizona’s state education department put Alchesay on its list. That directed extra resources to the school on the Apache reservation in Whiteriver and lured Sandoval to the remote high school in 2010.

Principal Roy Sandoval of Arizona’s Alchesay High School speaks at the Department of Education. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

In the year before Sandoval’s arrival, the school had seen almost 300 drug and alcohol incidents. Students were walking out between periods to buy liquor from “bootleggers” who set up just off campus, then returning to class. Open defiance, open display of gang colors, and fights were commonplace—and the first hill that the new principal and his staff began to climb.

“If you don’t have a safe and orderly environment, if you’re not formidable enough to establish that, then forget it,” Sandoval told the April 26, 2012, gathering of education association representatives and Department of Education staff. “All the innovation you have in the world, all the technology—if you don’t have administrators that are going to shake that place up and make it safe, [real school reform is] not going to happen.”

Also highlighted at the Department’s forum were the school turnaround efforts of the St. Louis (Mo.) Public Schools, where at the district level, an Office of Innovation was created to guide the turnaround work in 11 SIG-supported schools. St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams credits his leader of that office, Assistant Superintendent Michael Haggen, for his constancy in tending to the needs of those schools, and in making key adjustments guided by data.

As St. Louis has moved forward, specialized professional development, human resources and accountability coordinators, staff mapping, and continuous review of student and teacher data are components that have been developed specifically to support school improvement. And as Adams and Haggen were quick to note, just improving these 11 schools, so that in a few years they trade places with the 11 schools directly above them in performance, won’t be good enough. St. Louis leadership is working to embed these principles and strategies district-wide.

Coupled with their no-nonsense attitude for improvement, what these two vastly different turnaround endeavors have in common is a genuine and apparent love for kids. For Principal Sandoval in Arizona, a “double-dose” of math and English language arts that he has incorporated has to be provided by instructors who care for their students, who talk with them and connect with them every day.

“You know in my school the job description is: You need to jump in and help on whatever is necessary,” Sandoval said. “Everybody knows that the terminal words for me are ‘it’s not in my job description.’ It’s not? Really? We do whatever it takes. That’s what it takes to turn a school around.”

For more information on the progress in St. Louis and at Alchesay High School, the forum transcript can be found here, and a video of the presentations here. Alchesay’s student media class also produced a short video in which students and teachers describe the transformation of their school.

Karen Stratman-Krusemark 

Karen is the Department’s K-12 Associations Liaison, and a former English teacher and coach.